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Chapter VI

WHEN I had taken down my hair for the night, and changed my dress for a loose white wrapper, I threw up my window and looked out, in a way I have had ever since the days of my childhood. It was a perfect night, cool and crisp and silent, with the moonlight pouring itself down in great waves of silver whiteness over mountain and plain. The moon does certainly know how to shine in these southern lands, and in no other land than Australia does it so completely transform the whole aspect of nature. Australia simply loses its individuality under the moon's rays; it drops its raw crudity of youth, and grows strong and great and grand with the strength and greatness and grandeur of virility, not with the cock-sure bumptiousness of precocity.

As I stood looking out, slipping involuntarily back to wander among the graves of old dead hopes and slain follies, that died hard in those old days, when life was so full and death so bitter, I was just preparing for myself a miserable and rather a mawkish quart-d'heure, when again I heard a little rustle, and the furtive tread of slippered feet, and I put my head out of the window to hear more distinctly.

My room was in a block of bed-rooms quite isolated from the house, and it had a separate verandah of its own; but it never struck me to be frightened. I think I was in too excited and absorbed a state concerning

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man and selfish natures to take proper notice of outer events.

I listened again, in rather a half-hearted way, and the tread came nearer, and I could distinguish a black-clothed figure advancing swiftly and softly. When it saw me, it raised a white warning hand—a woman's, from the size of it. I had no further time for speculation; the walk changed to a quick noiseless run, and the figure stopped before my window, threw down its cloak, and displayed to my astonished sight Miss Ariell in full dinner dress. ‘Let me into your room, quick!’ she whispered, with a soft chuckling laugh.

I moved aside mechanically, in a whirl of passive, silent, indignant amazement. I could not have got out a word for the life of me. When she got in, she pulled down the window and drew the blind, then she ran to the door and noiselessly turned the key in it, then she sat down in my most comfortable chair. I saw her pause to select it—oh, the cool audacity of that person! And then she broke out in a long bubble of laughter that shook her from head to heel with its low soft intensity, and she looked at me out of those two untranslateable eyes of hers. I no longer wondered at men, or blamed them for any depth of foolishness. I believe I was in love with her myself that minute, she looked so radiant and so lovely, and, in the dim lamp-light, so young; and the little mocking devil in her laugh only increased her charm a thousandfold.

‘Ah, I know you know all about it,’ she cried softly.

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‘That duffer Clarence Swallow has it all over the place, just for mere spite. If you knew the love—and the sort of love—he made to me; but there was nothing either to like or to laugh at in the creature. I had to squash him at once. Look here; I'm going away by the first train to-morrow with my husband—yes, my husband. I'm married to him all right, and he's not half a bad sort, but you see he's an actor, and makes me work; and I can tell you an actor's life is a good sight harder than a stone-breaker's or a daily governess's; and, besides, the fellow's as jealous as a boy. I thought I'd take a holiday and give him one. But he didn't like it in all its points. Poor fellow, he makes his life a toil watching me! Isn't it idiotic? and such woful waste of time, too; as if a woman won't go her own way in spite of the watching of fifty men. Now this last affair was pure kindness on my part. I met Clive Pomfret on the Tasmanian boat, and I simply had to take care of the child. Mrs. Vallings, that boy's the greatest fool, and the straightest, honestest fool, I ever met in my life. Nothing would do him but to marry me!—marry me! Heavens!—and we went on a honeymoon, all quite correct. But for reasons of my own—I won't tell you them, they're too many and too complex—we were step-brother and sister; and we came up here—here, into this little hotbed of second-hand pigmy conventions—Oh; oh, oh!’ she cried, shaking and gurgling—‘and you saw how I was treated. You were the only mortal soul that suspected me, Mrs. Vallings. Why? do tell me.’

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I looked at her indignantly. She gave another little laugh, and went on.

‘It was the hugest joke. The boy's innocence—and the little coterie here, and its enthusiastic reception of me, and that wonderful Fleming family’—

‘Yes, and poor Vandeleur,’ I broke in angrily.

‘Oh, that fool! I'm sorry for the other, very, though I assure you I have done my duty by him, for I've been disillusioning him like anything the last fortnight. But that Vanny—oh, that self-satisfied, virtuous ninny!—I'm not a rap sorry for him. Bless you, it'll be the making of him. I came here to-night partly about the creature. You never asked me, by the way, why I came, although you looked daggers, and bloody ones. Well, no matter, I suppose you can't, from your different make, see the joke in it all. I do.’

‘Joke!’ I could hardly speak for choking disgust.

‘Joke! yes. Ah, you don't know anything about the spirit of acting on a person! I had quite a frenzy of it on me, playing half-a-dozen games at the same time, and mystifying the most intensely respectable and conventional audience in the whole length and breadth of the continent. Joke! it was a dozen jokes, and good ones, rolled into one.’

‘Please continue,’ I said, with much dignity. ‘You informed me you came on Mr. Vandeleur's account.’

She laughed, and glanced from head to foot of me. I would have given a great deal to throw her out of the window. That was impossible; besides, I wanted to hear if in any way I could help either of these boys.

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‘How young you do look, to be sure,’ she laughed insolently,—‘in some lights, that is.’

I tried to freeze her with a look; but where was the use? she laughed again with her soft gurgling ripple.

‘Oh, Van,’ she went on lazily. ‘Well, I had mapped out such a lark. Van and I were to be married tomorrow at 11.30 A.M. He has the licence this minute. I daresay it's under his pillow. O Lord!’ —she collapsed again into a noiseless fit of mirth. ‘You appear to have taken to him. He swears by you, anyway. You might meet him at the 11.30 A.M. train, and let him into the secret. My husband and I are going by the mail to-morrow at 2 P.M.’

‘And Clive?’

‘Oh, he ran up to town by the evening train on business I invented for him. When he comes back, I'll be on the high seas. You'll have your hands full with those two boys, Mrs. Vallings. How providential you should turn up just in the nick of time! Quite a direct interposition, I should say!’

‘Have you no compunction at all, Miss Ariell; are you altogether heartless?’

She was perfectly silent for a few minutes; and gradually such a change came over the face of the woman as I never in my wildest imaginings could have thought possible. The mask of laughing, sardonic, devilish mirth dropped from her, taking all the sparkle and colour and light and youth with it, and a new face looked out at me—a terrible face, old and grey and wicked and sad, with the sadness

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of death and with the corruption of the grave on it. I shuddered and covered my face.

‘Ah, you may well hide your face,’ she hissed out at me—her voice had altered with her face. ‘Do you know, woman, that I was once as good and as ignorant—as ignorant, mark you—as those two yellow-haired girls over there in the house? They're giggling there this minute like two babies,—I heard them as I waited for you,—and I was as innocent as these. Well, I came to grief, by no fault of mine, through sheer idiocy, and then men took me for a shuttle-cock, and played their fill with me; and now my time is come, and I am having my revenge. That's the whole story.’

‘Why do you choose boys to carry out your revenge on? That seems to me a poor mean game.’

‘On the principle of an eye for an eye, youth for youth. How old was I when they began their game with me? But I assure you I have an atom of heart still. It is wonderful, too, considering all things; but I suppose a woman's heart is never killed outright, God help her! I'm sorry for Clive; no one knows how good the fellow is, and will be. Look after him. Send him home, Mrs. Vallings; the boy must have home life and good women about him to keep him straight. Melbourne will be the ruin of him. Send him home when he is fit to go. As for Vanny, that's all calf-love. He'll be all right, bless you!’

She stood up and threw out her white rounded arms with a gesture of utter weariness. I could have pitied her, but for her conduct towards those girls.

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‘What devil made you tell those girls the things you did?’ I demanded.

A flash of the old mocking malice crossed her face.

‘What devil? The same old serpent, I suppose. There's been no special devil created for me, that I'm aware of—more's the pity! You think me a beast, of course,’ she said suddenly—‘all bad.’

‘No, I don't,’ I made impetuous answer. There was a worn, weary look on her face, and her hands dropped listlessly,—somehow she touched me; and good does get so intricately entangled in evil sometimes. ‘No; I think there's a little sound bit in your heart still. Can't you give it a chance to spread?’

‘No, I can't; it's too late, too late. Well, good-bye; we'll not see one another again. You've depressed me. I couldn't laugh now as I did when I came into the room, to save my life. Bah! the joke tastes flat. But I'm really obliged to you for these two wet eyes. Look after the boys, both of them. Good bye!’

She opened the window and crept softly out.

‘God help you!’ I cried, as she was stepping off the verandah. ‘Won't you try?’

‘Can't be done,’ she called back, with her mocking laugh. ‘Thanks all the same.’

I saw her walk away under the brilliant moonlight into a dense clump of wattle, then she had gone out of my sight for ever.

Next day I went to the railway station at Spencer Street and met Vandeleur Fleming. I did my best for the boy, but it was a very poor and inefficient

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best. His suffering was as real and intense as if he had not had a ridiculous strain in him. As I foresaw, he found a very complete retribution in the bosom of his righteous family.

As for Clive, I have never been able to think of that boy's sorrow, much less speak of it. I have been the sole gainer in the whole miscrable transaction, having come out of it the richer by two steadfast friends, who have done much to bring back the old fresh sweetness of life, and who make up to me for many past hopes and banished illusions. I see in those fair girls what I might have been, and pray God to keep them unspotted from the world.